Filmmaker Retrospective: The Classic Comedies of Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati

This is a professional rugby player who became a stage mime, went on to win an Oscar, put his last penny in a film he truly believed in and then of course, went bankrupt. A director who was lauded more in foreign land than in his own country—at least when he was alive.

Although Andre Bazin has ranked him with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as one of the all time comic geniuses, and his contribution to French cinema is today regarded as no less than those of Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and François Truffaut, his oeuvre consists of just six full length features along with a handful of shorts. This is Jacques Tati.

Tati made movies during what is known as Les Trente Glorieuses in French history, a thirty-year-long period after World War II that was marked by various technological developments and ushered in the modern France. And in almost all his films we see the protagonist fumbling to cope up with the rapidly modernising world. But he is neither overtly critical nor does he indulge in making any political statement. His is a half-amused glance of a keen observer of the self-obsessed society that is increasingly becoming a slave of technology.

He not only reinvented deadpan slapstick comedy but took it a notch higher with his meticulously choreographed visual gags, elaborate and detailed sets, often experimental and often sublime cinematography, brilliant use of camera angles and editing techniques. His early career as a mime in French music halls had a huge impact on his later works.

Jacques Tati films

Although he made movies almost two decades into the sound era, his films are essentially slapstick comedy, reminiscent of that of Buster Keaton, with little dialogue of importance. This particular characteristic also conveys how superfluous the world with all its cacophony appears to Tati. However, Tati was brilliant in his use of sound effects which in many instances not only heightens the comic effect but becomes the central point of the gag.

His style was uniquely his own and it was a style he not only invented but perfected. According to film critic Dave Kehr, Tati “is one of the handfuls of film artists—the others would include Griffith, Eisenstein, Murnau, Bresson—who can be said to have transformed the medium at its most basic level, to have found a new way of seeing.”

His comedies were essentially episodic. There are elaborately designed set pieces sans a conventional plot or a pivotal character. And due to this very nature his films, many trace the birth of French New Wave cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson back to Tati.

As an actor, he is often named among the greatest comedians of the sound era but in spirit still he belonged to the silent-era and had a penchant for mime. While other director-actors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, almost always reserved the pivotal role for themselves, Jacques Tati would let his ensemble cast, consisting mostly non-professional actors, take centre stage and often himself disappear from the action.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, he created an on-screen alter-ego Monsieur Hulot. But unlike the Tramp, he never let him hog the limelight. Steering clear from the hyper-performance of Chaplin and Keaton, he made the tall and gangly trench-coat-clad pipe-smoking self-effacing Hulot a supporting character, a casual observer of the situation.

Jacques-Tati movies

As Bazin points out “Hulot is not a comedian in the sense of being the source and focus of the humour; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humour in the world around him.” Tati in his own words described Hulot as “He is just a fellow in the road…a little head-in-air, thinking about other things.”

Tati first faced the camera for the 1932 short Oscar, Champion du Tennis (Oscar, Tennis Champion). Directed by Jack Forrester, the film never saw the light of the theatres. In 1934 he starred in another sports comedy, Charles Barrois’s On Demande Une Brute (Wanted: A Brawny Wrestler).

This was followed by Jacques Berr’s 1935 film Gai Dimanche (Lively Sunday). In this 40-minute short Tati along with his friend Enrico Sprocani aka Rhum starred as a pair of funny conmen who embark on a hilarious road trip. Talking about this film, David Bellos in his book Jacques Tati: His Life and Art says, “seems to have less to do with Tati’s métier as a mime, and more to do with the early development of the themes that he would later elaborate into films of real imaginative quality.”

Next we see Tati a year later in Rene Clement’s Soigne Ton Gauche (Watch your Left). The 13-minute sketch is another sports comedy which has a mimed boxing match as its centrepiece. In 1939 he joined the War and it was not until 1946 that he would return to films and would try his hands in direction for the very first time.

L’Ecole des facteurs (School for Postman) was a 15-minute short that centred on a village postman named Francoise. Played by Tati himself, this self deluded buffoon will later appear in his first full length feature, win hearts even in foreign shores, and pave the way for his classic creation the poker-faced bumbling Mr Hulot.


1. Jour de fete /The Big Day (1949)

Jour de fete 2

In his very first feature Tati mixes satire with slapsticks as he focuses on the modern-day obsession with speed and efficiency. Francoise (played by Tati) and his bicycle make a comeback in this visual comedy that establishes Tati’s genius not only as a creator of sight gags but also as a pantomime.

If L’Ecole des facteurs was a dry run for his first feature, Jour de fete served as a prototype for all the later masterpieces of Tati. It is essentially plotless and showcases the basic characteristics of his films—the brilliant camera work, meticulous editing, sparse use of dialogues interspersed with hilarious sound effects.

In a time when Europe was struggling with post war depression and the films reflected that gloom, Tati’s film was like a breath of fresh air.

A year back, Vittorio di Sica had released his masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief. Considered one of the most important films of Italian Neorealism, it paints a devastating picture of the bleak conditions of the society through the story of a man in quest of his stolen bicycle which is the end all and be all of his very existence as it is the deciding factor between getting a job and unemployment.

Jour de fete 1

Then comes Tati’s disaster prone postman on his rickety bicycle and makes a fool of himself as he tries to attain the ‘American Dream’. There are carnivals, merry-go-rounds, easy banter, celebrations, and beer-guzzling simpletons.

A travelling fair arrives in a small sleepy village of post-war France. And like everyone else, Francoise, the silly yet determined village postman, is fascinated by it. There, high on wine, he watches a newsreel about the jet-paced American postal system.

He becomes determined to take on the mighty Americans armed with the most advanced helicopters and motorbikes, on his wobbly old bicycle. He goes on to randomly introduce various methods which are all doomed to fail. The film reflects life in a small close-knit society and its values but also the fact America at that time was regarded as a nation of innovations, where every dream could be turned into reality.

The film also gains importance as it was arguably the first French film made in colour. Tati, always a risk taker, shot the film in Thomsoncolor—an experimental colour format which couldn’t be processed until 1994, when his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, restored the prints. However, by then sections of the original colour prints were lost. But thankfully Tati had also shot simultaneously in black and white and the world didn’t have to wait till its restoration to enjoy this classic.

Although released France in 1949, it took a London premiere and a nod from the international press for the people back home to take Tati’s comedy seriously. The film went on to win an honour for the ‘best scenario’ at the Venice Film Festival, and bagged the ‘Grand Prix du Cinema Francais’ award in 1950.

Tati had stated that after the success of Jour De Fete at Cannes and Venice, he “ could have played it safe with Jour De Fete, recycled the character of the postman…the postman visits the Ministry, the postman joins the army and so on…it would have been easy,” but Tati was never the man who would play it safe. So, a brand new character, Mr Hulot, was born.


2. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot/ Mr Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot 3

He makes his maiden appearance in a rickety car (a ‘20s’ Amilcar), that looks more like a soap box on bicycle tyres, sputtering his way to Saint Marc sure mer, a small seaside getaway in Brittany. He kicks up a storm, quite literally, as soon as he enters Hotel de la Plage, a buzzing resort where he will stay for the rest of his vacation. And his very entry sets the mood of what is to follow.

Although often regarded as the forefather of Mr Bean, but unlike Rowan Atkinson’s character, Mr Hulot is not a crazy guy who is meant to be the butt of the joke. He is a genial and well meaning thorough gentleman who doesn’t mind going out of his way to help people.

It is just that he happens to be a disaster magnet. His very presence is enough to create some catastrophe of sorts. He simply bumbles by and the world order crumbles. And what makes this clumsy fellow more endearing is his nonchalance. Even amid mayhem and misadventures he never loses his happy gait, or his beloved pipe, and bows and doffs his hat to wish everyone—including the empty chairs, and the hotel radio when its announcer wishes good night — around like a perfect gentleman.

Even when nothing goes as planned, he is hardly surprised. It seems as if he is at home with chaos. It is this casual acceptance of things, and the non-judgemental approach that give Hulot his distinctive world view.

And what more, he manages to do all these deadpan! In fact, the entire ensemble cast goes through the hilarious situations with a straight face, and without speaking much (although the film won an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay). And this lack of dialogues is accentuated by the background Jazz score and a Tatisque manipulation of noises—deflating tyres, volleying tennis balls, slamming doors –trivial mundane sounds become important comic device in the hands of Tati.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot 2

However, it is not a film about Hulot. He is just one of the characters who land up in the beach resort. Tati packs each frame with various random activities of the vacationers, so much so, that it is almost impossible to understand all the goings-on in one watch—you have children walking by with ice creams that never melt, thanks to some magic ingredient; there is Henry, the husband who is out for a stroll with his wife but always keeps a safe distance from her (and initially comes across as a stalker as there is hardly any conversation between the two); Mr Meinard, the diligent proprietor of the resort who is ever welcoming and courteous to his guests but when it comes to Hulot and young children, he would like to keep them at bay; Mr.Smith, the stock broker who is forever on official calls checking share prices with London, three young men trying to impress a lady by dropping various American references, including Billy Holiday; and so on. The film showcases Tati’s brilliant power of observing people and their eccentricities. As Tati had himself said: “Film making is a pen, paper, and hours of watching people and the world around you.”

But the film is essentially plotless. We go through several incidents that happen but not in any particular order—you can add or subtract the gags or change the sequence without really changing much of the film.

And for this kind of an open-ended, non-directive narrative, Monsieur Hulot is often regarded as a precursor of modernist cinema and Dave Kehr goes as far as saying: “Without M. Hulot there would be no Godard, no Straub, no Duras — no modern cinema . . . Tati drove the first decisive wedge between cinema and classical narration”

A meticulous director, his attention to details is reflected in the perfectly choreographed scenes like when Hulot tries to paint a boat and the paint bucket lands on a wave, but it keeps coming back, riding on the very wave, every time Hulot needs to dip the brush in it. Such scenes are quintessential Tati—they are not madcap screwball comic situations that will make you burst in fits of laughter, but will leave a gentle smile on your face.


3. Mon Oncle/My Uncle (1958)


Five years after the holiday at Brittany, Mr Hulot returned to the silver screen—this time with a nephew to keep him company and in colour. And on this outing, he picked up not just the Special Jury Prize at Cannes but also an Oscar in the best foreign film category.

If Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was about evoking the nostalgia of beach holidays and the simple pleasures of life—playing on the sand, eating ice creams, reading books, taking leisurely strolls; Mon Uncle is about the other side of the spectrum where man is slowly becoming a machine. In its spirit, it is very much like Chaplin’s Modern Times—a satire on modern man’s mechanical existence and over-reliance on technology.

Little Gerard, the son of Hulot’s sister Mrs Arpel, is bored of his high-society upbringing and looks for ways to spend time with his uncle, Hulot, who introduces him to the simple pleasures of life. However, Mr Arpel is concerned that Hulot might have a negative impact on his boy and to keep Hulot busy and away from Gerard, he finds him a job in his plastics factory. But soon it is evident that Hulot and the assembly line are not really meant for each other. And this leads to a hilarious string of events.

Tati pits the socially awkward Monsieur Hulot, an unemployed simpleton, against the Arpels, part of the high-society bourgeoisie whose very existence in dependent on various latest labour-saving automated devices—if Hulot symbolises the past, the Arpels are the future.

Mon Oncle 2

The Arpel Villa (which predicts the magnificently crafted Tativille of Playtime and will go on to inspire the iconic house of The Powerpuff Girls) with its sleek, minimalist design and ultra-modern gadgets and gizmos, a fish-shaped fountain (that Mrs Arpel switches on only when there are important visitors, which do not include her brother Mr Hulot), a geometric garden, an ultra-modern kitchen that looks more like an operating room, is juxtaposed with the idyllic Parisian (and fast disappearing) neighbourhood where Hulot lives in a modest rooftop apartment.

As young Gerard feels suffocated by the mechanical existence and often runs to his uncle for some fresh air, travels between the two worlds, the contrast between the two and the people who inhabit them becomes even more acute. Tati accentuates this difference in the colour scheme as well—while the Arpel universe is painted in sterile white, silver and bland pastel shades; Hulot’s is a world in robust warm colours.

As his previous film, it is a visual comedy that relies much on sight gags and the physicality of My Hulot. But, though dialogues are sparse, music and sound effect serve as an important device to heighten the comic effect.

As Mr Hulot stumbles and fumbles his way through the film, which can be regarded as a descendent of the French Comedy of Manners, the audiences are made acutely conscious of the superficiality of the ultra-modern lifestyle of the nouveau-riche and the consumerism that is slowly engulfing the society.

Just like the cinema of Godard and Truffaut, it is a social commentary on postwar France—alibi Tati prefers to serve the bitter pill in a sweet capsule. And in this respect, he is indeed “an unlikely and aloof member of the French New Wave.”